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  • The Diplomacy of Nationalism: The Six Companies and China’s Policy toward Exclusion by Yucheng Qin
  • Daniel Meissner (bio)
Yucheng Qin. The Diplomacy of Nationalism: The Six Companies and China’s Policy toward Exclusion. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009. x, 224 pp. Hardcover $51.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3274-2.

The Six Companies, according to Yucheng Qin, played a far more influential role in protecting Chinese immigrant rights in the United States and in shaping late Qing diplomacy and nationalism than scholars have previously realized. This study attempts to rectify that oversight by examining the Six Companies from the perspective of a traditional huiguan (native place association), a transnational labor facilitator (not broker), a quasi-official governmental institution, a pioneering nationalist organization, and a model for Qing diplomatic missions. As if this were not an ambitious enough project, Qin also takes to task Joseph Levenson’s assertion of late Qing evolution from culturalism to nationalism, arguing that nongovernmental agents such as huiguan were instrumental in transitioning native place identity to nationalism.

Qin begins by defending the Six Companies against a prevalent mid-nineteenth-century (and still generally accepted) accusation that the organization served as a conduit for importing indentured coolie labor. In chapter 1, he presents a brief historical view of international trading networks linking Guangdong with far-flung Cantonese merchant communities. He argues that Chinese immigration to the United States was an extension of these historical “commercial activities” (p. 17). Although he is setting the foundation for an anti-coolie argument, he admits (and thus clouds the issue) that the cost of transit to San Francisco was at least four times the annual income for Chinese laborers, and, therefore, “some Chinese came to the United States through a contract labor system” (p. 21). The following paragraph is even more inclusive, claiming that “the majority of Chinese immigrants came to California during the nineteenth century by means of the credit-ticket system” (p. 21). Under this system, immigrants would repay the cost of transit, presumably with interest, after finding some means of support in the United States. Again, to Americans at the time (and, indeed, to many scholars today), it is difficult to distinguish a contract labor or credit-ticket system from indentured labor. Regardless, someone or some institution was needed with the means to advance substantial sums of money for the thousands of Chinese immigrants who sojourned to the United States.

Qin continues to build his argument in chapter 2 by briefly reviewing the push and pull factors that prompted the great mid-nineteenth-century wave of Chinese immigration, and the creation of native place associations. Chinese merchants who established business enterprises in San Francisco to provide goods and services to sojourning laborers also established native place huiguan. These mutual aid societies offered a variety of services for those who emigrated from the same hometown or district, including housing and labor assistance, dispute settlement, and the [End Page 477] repatriation of remains. In chapter 3, Qin describes how racial tensions and discriminatory legislation directed against Chinese as an ethnically distinct group prompted the largest six huiguan to consolidate as the Zhonghua Gongshuo (Chinese public association), generally known as the Six Companies. Qin argues that the Six Companies represented a highly significant change from the traditional native place huiguan to a comprehensive national organization. He further argues that the Six Companies would play a critical role not only in the protection of Chinese immigrant rights in the United States, but also in the development and use of nation-state diplomacy and the transference of this skill to the Qing government.

In chapter 4, Qin returns to the issue raised in chapter 1 concerning the widely accepted view that the Six Companies acted as a labor broker for Chinese immigrants. He provides a historical context for anti-Chinese activism in the 1860s and 1870s based on unchecked Chinese immigration and declining economic conditions in California. The American view of coolieism and the perceived role of the Six Companies in brokering indentured labor was succinctly captured by the San Francisco Chronicle: the Six Companies has “‘almost despotic authority over the Chinese immigrants, compelling a long term of...